Raw Bench Pressing - 10 Things You Need To Know

By Jim Wendler

Hot chick with no shirt = good
Fat man at County Fair (special guest appearance by Bad Company) with no shirt = bad
Bench pressing without a shirt = your opinion


I’m not going to debate the shirt/no shirt conundrum that has seemed to enrage the strength community. Debating this topic is about as productive HMB. So while some people are busy taking a hard and fast stance, I’m going to do something to help people.
Now the next obvious (and fair) question is, “What the hell does Jim know about benching raw?” I’ve used a shirt for all of my competitions and this has spanned almost 5 years. I’ve been lifting for over 17 years so I’m going to make a very bold statement and say that I’ve done a lot more raw benching than shirted benching.
What you’ll notice is that there are a few differences in benching raw, but not a lot. People seem to think that there has to be radical changes when shirt benching, but last time I checked you still lie on a bench and press.
Technique/Set up/Bar Path
I did an entire video on the correct set up and bar path on the bench press. Do yourself a favor and buy the DVD. I put a lot of work and thought into the video. Plus, you need to see the form/set up to really grasp it. Something that I think people need to do in regards to technique is more practice. This doesn’t mean more bench sessions. It means that you will perform reps with the bar everyday. Try to perfect your set up and bar path. Do at least 50 good reps a day. This will pay off more than you will ever know. Also, every set and every rep must be perfect. Don’t do your warm-up by pressing the bar like an unhinged piston. Do them correctly. Develop a habit. EFS Bench Press Index DVD
Bar Speed/Eccentric Control
This is huge and one reason why a bench shirt helps quite a bit. When benching for a max, whether it be raw or with a shirt, the bar must come down quickly but under control. This does not give you license to drop the bar or inch the bar down Poliquin-style. Both of these things will result in a poor attempt. A bench shirt allows you to have a fast eccentric phase while maintaining your tightness. Since a raw bencher is using his best 50/50 shirt, he does not have this advantage. Here are some tips that will help you in this area:


Squeeze the bar – You must squeeze the bar as tight as possible when benching. This should be done on every attempt. Repetition breeds habit. Now how do you get a better bench grip? I have found that the best way is to train your finger strength. Do this by using hex head dumbbell holds, using the IronMind telegraph with your thumb and one finger, and also by putting a thick rubber band around your fingers and opening your hand. This exercise was introduced to me by CJ Murphy and has also done a lot for people with elbow problems. There are a host of great grip exercises that you can do and most of them will help your bench press. Just don’t overdo your grip training.
Strong Lats – Having strong lats will give you the ability to lower the bar correctly and allow you to lower quickly without disrupting the proper bar path. Developing this takes time, so be patient.
Practice – This is obvious but you have to put in sometime to learn how to lower a bar quickly but do it so it is done correctly. This is not easy to do. Most people get scared doing this with heavy weights so at some point you are going to have put your fears aside, and just do it. A good way to do this is to make it a point every Max Effort day to concentrate on eccentric bar speed. But please don’t be sloppy.
Set up – By having a tight set up (again refer to the EFS Bench Press Index DVD) you will be able to confidently lower weights. I have done numerous seminars and when I show people what “tight” really is, they are amazed. I had several people approach me and say that they have never been so tired after benching. So if you think you are tight, get tighter.
Stabilization
Stabilization basically means that you are able to hold your set up position in the bench press without faltering. You have to be able to stay high on your upper back and have total control of the bar. This is easy to do, but it takes a lot of time. Stabilization in the bench press requires several things.


Strong AND thick lats - Do you want to know the trick of getting this stronger? Do a lot of work. It’s not that hard to figure out. Do a ton of chest supported rows and pull-ups. These two exercises are phenomenal for strengthening your lats. These should be done twice per week – a minimum of 5 sets of 5-15 reps per workout. But you also need static strength in your lats. When you bench press your lats are held statically. The best way to improve this is to statically hold a chest supported row in the same position as you bench press. This doesn’t have to be done all the time, but realize its importance in training.
Strong AND thick upper back – This can be accomplished by doing rows and chins (see above), seated DB cleans, face pulls, rear laterals and band pull-aparts. Like the lats, the upper back is held statically so this component must be trained.
Shoulders – Few people would argue that you need very strong front delts to be a good raw bencher, but strong delts also help in controlling and stabilizing the weight.
Shoulder Strength
I mention shoulders before, but strengthening this area is going to be huge. This is the single best thing that I’ve ever done for my raw strength. Here is a list of exercises that need to be done. Pick one of these exercises and perform them once a week. Usually 5 sets of 8-15 reps are done. This should be done as a second exercise on either dynamic or max effort day. This is a huge priority so don’t slack.


DB Bench Press
DB Incline Press
DB Military
Military Press
Chain suspended push-ups (place a band around your back or chains across your back for resistance; you can also have a person sit on your back; I swear this has been done before) Upper Body Blast Straps
Bradford Presses
All of these exercises are gone over in our Bench Index, so I will not waste time on descriptions. I should point out that when doing the dumbbell work, I would lower the DB’s under control, pause for a second and drive them up. I never thought to “push” or “press”, but drive them up. I think this made a big difference in my bottom end strength.
Max Effort Exercises
Max effort work is crucial for increasing strength. By lifting in the 90-100% range, you are going to get stronger. The trick is doing enough work in this range without overtraining. According to Prilipin, 3-10 lifts at or above 90% is optimal. But this is based on his findings with Olympic lifters. So you may have to tweak things a little, but use this as a guideline. Start with the minimum (3 total reps) and work from there. The bottom line is that you have to lift heavy weights to get stronger. Here is a list of great max effort exercises for the raw bencher:


Floor Press
2 Board Press
Incline Press
Bench Press
1 Board Press
Stick with these five exercises during your max effort cycles. Again these exercises are gone over in detail in the Bench Index.
******* Training
Notice I didn’t say triceps. Locking out a weight is completely different. For a raw bencher, ******* strength is important but not as much for an equipped lifter. This is because most people can ******* whatever they can get off of their chest. I should point out that ******* is about 3” to the top. This doesn’t mean halfway up. Still if this is a weak point of yours, then you have to hammer it. Plus, if your technique is good, you should be able to manipulate the bar path and put it in the correct position to lock out whatever you get off of your chest. I would stick with 3, 4 and 5 board presses with a competition grip or slightly narrower. Do one of these exercises ONE time per week as a second exercise.
Pre-habilitation
Because you are not wearing a bench shirt, you don’t have much protection for your shoulders. So I recommend being proactive in this department. By doing a lot of lat and upper back exercises, you are already on the correct path. The Shoulder Horn is another great tool and should be done once or twice a week. 2 sets of 20 reps is a smaller price to pay than surgery or losing the ability to bench press
Speed Work
The evil speed bench. A lot has been said about speed pressing, but it still has its merits. Basically it will teach you how to press from your chest to ******* with force. If you are toeing the line on this one, go ahead and take a step. Most people struggle with speed and this can do wonders for learning how to press with force. If you are still unconvinced, try doing one workout every three weeks for speed. This should do enough to maintain your speed. Also, be sure to do some reps with your competition grip. This is a good way to practice your bench form. This is because your form with a closer grip is usually different than a wide grip.
Bench Press
This is odd, but how many times have you read about how tricky it is to learn a bench shirt? I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what to do with a shirt. Raw benching is no different. If you invest the same time in figuring out how to maximize your technique as one does with a shirt, you will pleasantly surprised.
Maximize your training (prioritize)
The one good thing about raw benching is that you don’t have to spend training time on learning the shirt. With that in mind your training needs to have these priorities.
Technique – Once you get the bar almost to ******* position, your strength should be enough to lock anything out. This is manipulation of the bar path and once you get the hang of it, you will be ready to go. So this is a huge priority.
Off the Bottom – Strength off of your chest is a huge necessity and should be #2 on your priority list. This is part technique and part shoulder strength.
Stabilization – Get your lats and upper back up to par.
Max Effort Work – Lift heavy/Get Strong. If you want to increase your volume and your strength, do it by increasing the number of reps of 90% and above. Again, be careful as this can lead to overtraining. Refer to Prilipin’s chart for optimal reps (3-10). When doing more total reps at or above 90% (5, for example) your assistant work needs to be cut down.
Example Workout
Here is an example workout of mine when I was training for a raw bench max several years ago. This is taken from my training diary. At the time I had a raw bench of 405.
Day I


Speed Bench – 8 sets of 3 reps @ 225
DB Bench – 60x10, 80x10, 100x10, 100x10, 100x6
Chain suspended push-ups – 5 sets of 10 reps with an average band around my back
Pull ups – 5 sets of 5-8 reps
Day II


Floor Press – 45x5, 95x5, 135x5, 185x5, 225x3, 275x2, 315x1, 365x1, 385x1, 365x1
Chest Supported Rows – 5 sets of 10 reps
Rear Laterals – 5x15